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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 3, No. 24     25 May 2004


The Struggle of Palestinian Journalists for Freedom of the Press

Dan Diker


  • More than a dozen Palestinian reporters have been attacked since September 2003.

  • The three major PLO-controlled dailies - Al Quds, Al Hayam, and Al Hayat al Jadeeda - are Palestinian versions of the Soviet-era Pravda.

  • Since Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002 that reduced Arafat’s control in West Bank cities, Palestinian journalists and reformers have become more outspoken.

  • Local journalists have also been influenced by the Arab satellite news media which have occasionally criticized the PA leadership for widespread corruption, human rights abuses, and censorship.

  • However, direct criticism of Arafat in the local press is not tolerated and there is widespread self-censorship by most Palestinian journalists.

  • Journalists who report on the territories but who themselves live outside the Palestinian areas have a better chance of avoiding violent confrontations with the PA.


More Than a Dozen Attacks Since September 2003

On April 22, 2004, two masked Palestinian gunmen attacked Jamal Arouri, a photographer for the Palestinian daily Al Ayam and Agence France Press. The attackers clubbed Arouri repeatedly in front of his Ramallah home, breaking both of his arms and destroying his photography equipment. While AFP Jerusalem Bureau Chief Christian Chaise was at a loss to explain the attack, Arouri’s Palestinian colleagues noted that his living and working in the West Bank made him a more accessible target.1

The international organization Reporters Without Borders noted recently that “more than a dozen Palestinian reporters have fallen victim since September 2003 to clan rivalries, political instability, and a chaotic security situation. Because of their slowness and passivity, the Palestinian security services bear a heavy responsibility for these repeated attacks on the news media and journalists under their control.”2

In January 2004, Seifeddin Shahin, a Ramallah-based correspondent for Dubai’s Al Arabiya television network, was beaten at gunpoint by masked men for allegedly reporting on internal divisions within Arafat’s Fatah party, and for documenting public protests over the use of live machine gun fire during Fatah military celebrations.3 Fatah member Abu Khusa said the most recent attacks “were not only against journalists, but journalists with a point of view.”4

In February, masked men broke into the offices of Al Quds (Palestinian) Educational Television in Ramallah, threatened the editors and destroyed equipment.

In Gaza there have also been a number of violent attacks against Palestinian and Arab media professionals since January 2004, highlighted on March 2 by the murder of Khalil al Zaban, the Palestinian publisher of the fortnightly An Nashra. According to a well-placed Palestinian source, Zaban was likely assassinated on the orders of former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan over an impending report documenting Dahlan’s “thuggery, extortion, and blackmail.”5

In February, Munir Abu Rizek, bureau chief of the PA-controlled daily Al Hayat al Jadeeda, found his car torched after reporting on corruption in the Palestinian Authority. While Abu Rizek was unhurt, the incident sparked an unprecedented protest by the Palestinian Journalists Association. More than 200 journalists stormed into the empty chamber of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City, occupied the seats of legislators, and only agreed to leave after senior Arafat aide Tayaeb Abdel Rahim assured them that the PA security forces would bring the perpetrators to justice.6 The journalists association also demanded the resignation of Palestinian State Attorney Hussein Abu-Assi for failing to protect local journalists from the assaults.7

Some of the attacks have been carried out by various groups connected to the PA, either within the Palestinian security services or by competing groups vying for control within Arafat’s Fatah party.8 The younger generation of Palestinians, including those in Fatah, have called for a range of democratic reforms including broader freedom of the press. However, the old guard of Fatah, that took control of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, still uses the same tactics as were once employed by Saddam Hussein and Hafez El Assad.9

According to an Israeli Arab journalist who reports daily on the West Bank, the tyrannical mentality of the PLO is reflected in its control of the three major Palestinian dailies, Al Quds, Al Hayam, and Al Hayat al Jadeeda, which are Palestinian versions of the Soviet-era Pravda.10

The violence and intimidation against Palestinian reformers and journalists was termed the “intra-fada” in a special report in April 2004 by the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, directed by Bassem Eid, who formerly worked for the Israeli weekly Kol Ha’ir and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Yet Eid’s criticism of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority has come at a steep personal price. He avoids traveling to West Bank cities after being jailed by the PA in 1995 for documenting human rights violations in PA-controlled areas, and was freed only after the personal intervention of his brother, Hatem Abdul Khader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.11


Israel’s Return to Palestinian Cities Enables Reformers

Since Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, that essentially reduced much of Arafat’s power in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, Palestinian journalists and reformers have become more outspoken. Local journalists have also been influenced by the Arab satellite news media “revolution,” in which independent Arab satellite stations have introduced a measure of independence to counter PA-controlled news media. Palestinian reformers have appeared on Al Jazeera and other Arab stations criticizing the PA leadership for widespread corruption, human rights abuses, and censorship.

However, local offices of Arab satellite news networks have also been targeted. Arafat personally ordered the Ramallah offices of Al Jazeera closed following their broadcast of archive footage from Lebanon showing Arabs beating the PA leader’s portrait with shoes.12

Since the establishment of the Palestinian Ministry of Communications in 1994, the PA has sanctioned some 30-40 independent television and radio stations, and issued licenses to nearly 150 newspapers and magazines in the West Bank and Gaza. Direct criticism of Arafat in the local press is not tolerated and there is widespread self-censorship by most Palestinian journalists. However, Palestinians have succeeded in establishing a more open news media compared to other Arab dictatorships.


Press Freedom in the Palestinian Authority

In 1995, the Palestinian Authority passed press laws nominally guaranteeing journalists a wide range of freedom. However, PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo has not hesitated to invoke protective clauses empowering the PA to close down media outlets in order “to protect Palestinian national interests.” In 1998, Abed Rabbo closed eight TV and radio stations in the West Bank that had broadcast views critical of the PA.13

Pressure on West Bank and Gaza-based journalists to conform to PA dictates can be overwhelming. In January 2004, correspondents for Arab satellite networks were instructed by Palestinian Broadcasting Authority official Yussef Qazzaz to refer to any Palestinian killed by the IDF as a “martyr.” Qazzaz explained that “most of the correspondents of the Arab TV and radio stations need to be educated politically about the internal Palestinian situation.” Referring to charges of PA corruption made by Al Arabiya’s Ramallah correspondent, Qazzaz added that “he couldn’t understand how some Palestinian journalists make harmful remarks to their people at a time when even foreign journalists are careful not to alienate the PA.”14

Despite censorship pressures, some Palestinian journalists living and working in the Palestinian areas have maintained a degree of independence. American-born Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who founded Al Quds Educational Television and the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah, was held in detention for a week in 1997 for attempting to broadcast Palestinian Legislative Council sessions dealing with corruption.15 While Kuttab had written a daily column in Al Quds, the largest PA daily, since his arrest he has been banned from writing in PA papers.

Many of the most determined independent journalists have been forced to leave the PA areas. Khalid Amayreh, who launched the Hebron Times in 1998 and was backed by Hamas, fled to London after numerous raids by PA security agents and the eventual closure of the paper, which published harsh criticism of Arafat and the PA, as well as of Israel and the United States.16

One explanation offered for the recent upsurge in violence against Palestinian journalists has been a reduced tolerance for democratic freedoms within a Palestinian public seeking national unity in the face of Israeli anti-terror operations. For Arabs, in general, and Palestinians, in particular, national and familial unity trump the individual freedoms so prized in Western countries.17 That may explain why public support among Palestinians for the extremist group Hamas has overtaken support for the PA, following the targeted killings of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi. However, some Palestinian pro-democracy leaders such as Bassem Eid, Issam Abu Issa, and Omar Ibrihim Karsou reject the idea that individual democratic protections in Palestinian society should be replaced by national unity, even in times of national crisis.

While an increasing number of local journalists have criticized the PA for human rights abuses, corruption, and financial mismanagement, most Palestinian reporters and columnists see themselves as spokespeople for the Palestinian leadership. This usually means trumpeting the PLO’s ideological line such as the legitimacy of “armed resistance” against Israelis in the territories and blaming Palestinian reform failures on the Israeli presence (“occupation”) in the West Bank and Gaza.


Journalists Living Outside the PA are Safer

Palestinian and foreign journalists who travel daily in the territories in bullet-proof jeeps, reporting for international news agencies such as AP, Reuters, or the major American and European news networks, and who live outside the Palestinian areas, have a better chance of avoiding violent confrontations with Palestinian officials.

One well-known Palestinian reporter working for Israeli and American publications credits the fact that he lives outside the PA areas as sufficient protection against possible PA retribution for his free and independent news reporting on events in the territories. Jibril Rajoub, Arafat’s former senior West Bank security chief, told the reporter that “had he lived in the West Bank he would have been in jail a long time ago.”18

As some Palestinians continue the fight for democratic reforms, including freedom of the press, it should be emphasized that, overall, Palestinian journalists enjoyed greater freedom under the Israeli military administration between 1967 and 1994 than they have since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Ironically, three major PLO papers - Al Fajr, Al Shaab, and Al Awda - that had been licensed by Israel’s military authorities after 1967 and were published in eastern Jerusalem, were all closed by the Palestinian Authority.

*     *     *
Notes

1. Phone interview with a senior news producer, Agence France Presse, April 27, 2004.
2. “Another Attack on a Palestinian Journalist,” Reporters Without Borders, April 23, 2004; http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=9948
3. Arnon Regular, “Palestinian Journalists Protest Beating of Reporter,” Ha’aretz, January 13, 2004.
4. Christian Chaise, “Gaza Journalists Put Their Lives on the Line,” Middle East Online, April 9, 2004.
5. Interview with Palestinian political analyst, April 4, 2004.
6. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Arafat Meets the Fourth Estate,” Jerusalem Post, Upfront Magazine, February 20, 2004, p. 10.
7. DPA, “Journalists Demand Resignation of PA State Attorney,” Ha’aretz, March 3, 2004.
8. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Losing Authority,” Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2004. See also Dr. George Giacaman, “Democratic Reforms in Palestine in the Context of the War on Iraq,” Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, March 22, 2003; http://www.passia.org/meetings/2003/March22-Text.htm. See also Abu Toameh, “Fourth Estate,” p. 11.
9. Abu Toameh, “Fourth Estate,” p. 11.
10. Ibid.
11. Jon Emmanuel, “The Politics of Human Rights,” Jerusalem Post, December 14, 1999.
12. Abu Toameh, “Fourth Estate,” p. 11.
13. “Media in Palestine, Between the PNA’s Hammer and the Anvil of Self-Censorship,” Palestinian Human Rights Monitor, vol. 3, no. 5 (November 1999):13.
14. Khaled Abu Toameh, “PA to Journalists: All Slain Palestinians are Martyrs,” Jerusalem Post, January 12, 2004.
15. Daoud Kuttab, “Democracy Yes, But Not On Israel’s Terms,” Amin.org, May 10, 2002.
16. Dave Gilson, “The Palestinians and the Press, Hazards for Reporters Working in the West Bank and Gaza,” www.pbs.org, April 18, 2004.
17. Interview with Dr. Daoud Kuttab, April 27, 2004.
18. Interview with a prominent West Bank reporter who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, April 6, 2004.

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Dan Diker is a Knesset and economic affairs reporter for Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English News, and media affairs consultant at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs.


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